With airlines facing bankruptcy, consolidation, or worse, you should use your miles now
Because of strict mileage requirements and limits on the number of free seats per plane, it's harder than ever to earn a flight. Passengers have also discovered that awards tickets are often no longer free--you might have to pay flight taxes or a transaction fee, and getting an upgrade may cost you miles as well as a couple hundred bucks. Since airlines are growing increasingly stingy with benefits, and there's no guarantee loyalty programs will be around forever, smart travelers are using their miles while they can.
Awards seats are released 330 days before departure, and booking early is the best bet. Try not to get frustrated. The airlines aren't up front about it, but on some flights they don't grant any freebies. So forget about scoring a flight to the Caribbean or Europe leaving the weekend before Christmas. Whether you're searching for cheap fares or trying to use miles, the same advice applies when you hit a dead end: Be flexible, travel midweek, and avoid peak season.
Rather than calling an agent to look up one date at a time, go online. Carriers want to push customer service to the Internet, and that's often the easiest place to book frequent-flier tickets. On Continental's website, for instance, a calendar shows which days are available for redeeming miles.
Don't give up
If a flight isn't filling up as the departure date gets closer, airlines will sometimes release frequent-flier seats. Most charge a late-booking fee of about $50 if you're trading in miles with less than two weeks' advance notice--which is still better than paying full price. Use miles elsewhere: Most programs let you trade in points for luggage, car rentals, and hotel rooms. However you do it, get something of value for miles.
Stay in the loop
Subscribe to your airlines' e-mail alerts and keep an eye out for promotions in which you go farther with fewer miles. Trading in 25,000 miles is the standard for a free domestic ticket, but this past spring, Continental offered last-minute round trips between Newark and Nashville for $29 and 7,500 miles; and for 15,000 American Airlines miles, you could have flown round trip between certain airports in the Southwest and Canada on partner Alaska Airlines.
Consider buying miles
If you're just short of being able to cash in, paying for the extra miles is an option. Most airlines charge about $30 per 1,000 miles, plus a transaction fee. It only makes sense if you're close to the breaking point. Go for the upgrade: You're never going to pay for it out of your own pocket, so if you've got enough miles, take the opportunity to fly in style.
And do it soon
Upgrades aren't as easy to come by as they once were. Last December, American started charging $250 in addition to 25,000 miles each way for upgrades on many international flights. If your carrier's in bankruptcy, act now: Book tickets ASAP on your carrier or a partner. Even if your airline isn't around when the travel time comes, other carriers are more likely to honor an issued ticket than unredeemed miles.
Beware low-fare programs
Miles accumulated on JetBlue and Southwest Airlines expire every 12 months, so it takes an extraordinary amount of travel in a short time period to nab a free flight. With older carriers such as Delta and United, miles stay valid as long as your account is used once every three years.
Giving miles away to friends, family, and business associates is perfectly legitimate. (Selling miles is not allowed--airlines have cancelled the accounts of people caught auctioning miles on eBay.) Transferring miles to another airline or hotel reward program is possible through sites such as Points.com and WebFlyer.com, though there's almost always a net loss in value. Another option is donating miles to charity. Large nonprofits such as the United Way have well-established programs for accepting miles. You won't get a tax deduction, but it's good karma.